Faith under Fire is both one of the most Awful (in what it recounts) and Awe-full books that I have read in recent years. Andrew White is better known as the stubborn and inspiring ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, serving his 3500 strong congregation of St. Georges – the only Anglican church in Iraq. He daily faces the carnage of post-Saddam Iraq over 1000 miles away from his family.
Pain and Joy
White’s writing style is down to earth and repetitive. But it needs to be. The book is a violent and disturbing oxymoron that hits at the deep places of what it means to have faith and hope in God, or anyone. Merely reading about the sheer horror of the daily kidnapping, killing and torture of his congregation would be enough to leave most people with a desolate sense of despair and futility.
The love and joy, yes joy, that God brings in an ongoing basis is phenomenal. The pattern that girds the book is as follows:
- White talks of terrible pain and persecution and then says ‘but I have never known Love like I have known at St. Georges’.
- Again: ‘We mourn loss and tragedy of course, but most of the time we are filled with Joy’.
Pain and loss, yet love. Death and destruction, yet Joy. Pain, joy, pain, joy.
Reality of God’s presence
This is no cheap, happy-clappy, slipping along the surface joy, but a deep, real joy born of ‘love, love, love’ and the real power and presence of God.
Every service starts with the words ‘God is here and His Holy Spirit is here’. Not just a mystical liturgical phrase, but a statement of reality. The round orbs of light that sometimes hang above them, the clouds of God’s glory that accompany them in funerals, the visible presence of angels (‘Much as you’d expect them to look. We’ve learned to take them seriously’.) White does not attempt to explain these occurrences, but leaves us with the photos and says that ‘they are an indication of God’s presence’.
God is present in other ways too. White recounts the story of when he was preaching his sermon from the pulpit and felt very strongly that he should ask a smartly dressed man towards the back of the church to be forcibly asked to leave. ‘I rarely have supernatural words of knowledge and never in 5 years had I asked for someone to be ejected’. None the less he asked security to remove the man and when they searched him his jacket was packed with explosives. He was a suicide bomber.
The book fuses the so-called ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ together in a wonderful way. St. George’s provide groceries to over 1000 people at the end of each service and pay the rents of people who would otherwise be homeless. White has deep relationships with Shia, Sunni and Jewish leaders and is intimately involved in reconciliation between Muslims, Jews and Christians, taking huge risks to stare some of the most violent men inIraqin the face in the name of peace.
The best example of the breakdown in dualism comes in the medical arena. White is medically trained and felt that God was calling him to build a medical centre and had this confirmed to him by someone else. The centre was built and equipped in a few months. Now White says:
“When someone is ill we send them to the medical centre. If the medical centre can’t help they send them back to us for prayer. When I was in the UK we used to pray for people to be healed and a few, but not many were. Here most people we pray for are healed. When they’ve been healed I send them back to the medical centre to get checked out.”
White doesn’t abrogate our responsibility to work hard, take action and put our lives on the line. He doesn’t mystify the spiritual or sweep the horrendous atrocities under the carpet (as if that were possible), but everything they do comes from the power, presence, love and joy of God – ‘God is here and His Holy Spirit is here’.
Faith Under Fire brings profound challenges to me in both how I live my own life and for my work with people on the margins of society who are often all too familiar with grief and loss in their lives. The project I work in is one expression of a church and not the whole church itself (I’m not a church leader), but the questions still remain:
How do we better integrate our professional work and mission so that people have the opportunity to experience the power, presence, love and joy of God?
How do we make sure we continue to be absolutely clear and open about who we are to those agencies and organisations suspicious of faith (perhaps because of previous experience of hidden agendas)?
And perhaps the biggest challenge: What are our expectations of what God can do and what are we prepared to let Him do?